Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee takes his lumps

JaVale McGee has started six of the past seven games, averaging 10 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
JaVale McGee has started six of the past seven games, averaging 10 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

JaVale McGee really didn't have to say anything about how anxious he was about making his first start of the season against Minnesota two weeks ago, because he nearly did a much better job of revealing his nerves to the home fans at Verizon Center. After pregame introductions, McGee was ready to rip off his breakaway pants when he noticed that he wasn't wearing his game shorts.

McGee sprinted to the locker room, quickly made the switch from his black practice shorts, and recorded his first double-double of the season, with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.

"I was just used to wearing my practice shorts," McGee said recently, laughing about the incident.

McGee was undoubtedly caught off guard on the night that the Washington Wizards traded Antawn Jamison to Cleveland. The players got wind of the move only minutes before meeting with coaches as they prepared to play the Timberwolves. McGee assumed that he would finally get more playing time after the Wizards moved center Brendan Haywood to Dallas a few days earlier. But with Jamison gone, Andray Blatche moved to power forward and before he knew it, McGee was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time since last season's finale in Boston.

"It was a little nerve-racking," McGee, a second-year center, said of returning to the starting lineup after making 14 starts last season. "The young guys, we was like, 'Man, it's just us.' It's crazy. It was surreal, but right now, it's starting to kick in. It's a great feeling."

McGee has started six of the past seven games, averaging 10 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 22.3 minutes since the Wizards' trade deadline roster overhaul -- which also included dealing big man Drew Gooden to the Los Angeles Clippers and buying out 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, neither of whom ever played for the team. The moves ensured that the 22-year-old McGee, who remains an unpolished ball of potential and freakish athleticism, was going to get some playing time.

When asked how McGee has responded to his increased workload, Coach Flip Saunders said, "Some good, some bad, some indifferent, which you would expect."

In his last two outings against the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets, McGee provided all of the above. He was benched for the start against the Knicks on Friday after being late for the morning shootaround. He blamed his poor timing on having a flat tire. When he finally hit the court, McGee had season highs with 18 points and five blocked shots, but Knicks all-star center David Lee drove right around him to make the decisive layup with 1.6 seconds left in a 118-116 overtime loss.

"He was in more situations that game than he's been his whole NBA career, big situations," Saunders said. "But it was a good learning experience for him, and the more he's in that, the more it's going to facilitate his development."

McGee was clearly outplayed in the early stages on Sunday against Nets center Brook Lopez, who scored 10 points in the first period, forcing Saunders to call on Fabricio Oberto and later to go to a zone defense to prevent Lopez from exploiting one-on-one opportunities. But late in the fourth quarter, McGee found himself in the right spot for a rebound and put-back dunk to tie the score at 81 and later extended his extra-long arm to swat a driving layup by Devin Harris. "I just got to stick with it and fight it out," McGee said of working himself back from a rough start against the Nets. "I just got to come out every day and try to be consistent. I've been having a struggle with that."

McGee has also struggled with his strength and maintaining defensive position. Memphis center Marc Gasol repeatedly plowed into McGee and made his first 10 field goals as Saunders said McGee "was getting his butt kicked. The biggest thing with most young players, as they came up, they don't like contact -- [Kevin] Garnett was like that -- but they learn how to like it. Garnett loves it now. It's a matter of him understanding that if there is going to be contact in the game, it's better that you hand it out instead of receiving it."

McGee is already showing some wear and tear from the past two weeks. He suffered a strained tendon in his right wrist after dunking against Denver and he also has a bloody lip from another collision, but McGee would rather take a few lumps on the court than go back to being a spectator.

"I just got to keep playing hard to show that I deserve playing time," McGee said. "I feel all of us are extremely hungry."

Wizards note: The Wizards waived reserve guard Mike James after agreeing to terms on a contract buyout, which according to league sources was $150,000. James appeared in four games, averaging 4.5 points and 1.3 assists.

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